How I De-Cluttered My Spare Room (and Found Inner Peace)

This is the speech I’ll give to my Toastmasters group which meets on Saturday mornings:

Fellow Toastmasters: My name is Jennifer, and I’m a packrat.

The joys of living simply and traveling light do not resonate with me. For years, I saved every single paystub from my job. This sounds good and responsible until you consider I’ve worked there since 1999. When my company implemented electronic Notices of Deposit it didn’t really help. I simply printed the NOD and shoved that paper in the bulging file.

Accountants say you should save all bank statements for seven years – just in case the IRS decides to audit your tax returns. But my motto is why do when you can overdo? I had shoeboxes full of statements going back to my first professional job in 1990.

I say had, because two years ago, I bought myself a paper shredder for Christmas. Some would call that an odd gift to buy oneself, but it made me happy. I wanted to take control of my clutter. I was starting to fear that one day the TV news would blare “Irmo woman trapped in home by falling towers of paperwork. Film at 11.”

The day I brought home my shredder, I happily shredded for six entire hours, until the machine jammed and quit. I can’t blame it for wanting to rest – even after that six hours I had a weeks’ worth of shredding left to do.

For a while (a very short while) I had my hoarding tendencies under control. Then, in 2009, I enrolled in an accelerated graduate degree program. For over a year and half, I let everything else in life slide while I studied. Come August 2010, I graduated to find myself sitting (once again) amid piles of paper.

The problem had come to a head: I was too embarrassed to have friends over. Anna Quindlen once wrote that she had closets which she didn’t let visitors open for fear they’d be injured in the ensuing crash. I had an entire room I didn’t want friends going into! That doesn’t sound so horrible until you consider, my little patio home is only 1100 square feet. I couldn’t afford to lose the space.

This is what my little spare room looked like before:

The bed before decluttering
The spare bedroom before decluttering
The office before decluttering
The other half of the spare room before decluttering. Books askew everywhere!

My road to recovery started with an ad I e-mailed to a few friends. This is the text of the e-mail and ad:

Dear Ladies,

I need your help. This is embarrassing to admit but over the past 18 months my spare bedroom has turned into a junk room or perhaps more accurately a landfill. More books than I have room for, an old computer monitor, reams of paperwork and old bills cover the bed and floor.

I’m looking for one person to help me “declutter.” I do NOT expect this person to work. All I need is someone to stand over me and make me do the job. Every time I start to declutter on my own I’ll pick up an old book and start reading. Two hours later nothing is done. I want someone who will give me advice on what to keep, store or throw out and keep me from reading the books instead of organizing them.

In my e-mail I included this job description:

Wanted – one good-natured but strict supervisor to monitor one lazy worker prone to goofing off. Job expected to take one hour. Set your own schedule. Pay: Soft drinks while on the job, reciprocal supervisory service if requested, undying gratitude and invitation to dinner party at future date.

I have great friends. Five immediately volunteered.

My friend Dee came over the next Saturday afternoon and immediately whipped the room (and me) into shape. She didn’t just supervise – she was a drill sergeant intent on a wholesale re-organizing. She’d point at items and fire questions at me: Do you need that? Have you used it in the last year? Are you ever going to read it again?  She was relentless, forcing me to throw away items that I wanted to keep but will never miss. She even got me to make a stack of books to give away to the library.

Far from supervising me, Dee did most of the work. I really tried to help, I did. I’d pick up a book, and show it to her, saying “oh this is a great book, you should read it!” As Dee rearranged my bookshelves her work was punctuated by me saying over and over “Oh, I like this book.” Oh, I really like this book.” “Oh, now this book – I like this book.” After hearing that for the umpteenth time Dee turned to me and said “Jennifer, you’ve never met a book you don’t like!”

After three excruciating hours – not one – the job was done. We had stuffed several Hefty bags full of junk ready to throw out, and boxed up:

  1. One box of supplies to take to my office
  2. One box of computer parts to donate to charity
  3. One ENTIRE box of books to donate to the library …  and
  4. Seven boxes of books to store neatly in my attic.  (Hey, I wasn’t giving away everything!)

Here’s what the room looked like after Dee got through with it and me:

The spare room after Operation DeClutter
After Operation De-Clutter
My desk after Operation De-Clutter
I can actually use my desk now after Operation De-Clutter.

We are so obsessed with stuff in this country that we’ve created an industry – Self Storage – with $22 billion dollars in annual sales. Naturally, there are web sites devoted to this.  My favorite is “the Fly-Lady” – yes, that’s what she calls herself – who will send you daily e-mails for free telling you what to organize that day. I love her de-cluttering method. As she goes through a room deciding what to give away, she sings “Please release me, let me go!”

But George Carlin really deserves the last word on stuff. I can’t repeat everything he said, but George’s Youtube routine on stuff says it all. Like he says, all your house really is, is “a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

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One thought on “How I De-Cluttered My Spare Room (and Found Inner Peace)

  1. Tim Van Hal

    Good job Jen! Do you think Dee would help me with my garage? OK, it’s to far and she would want to commit suicide by the time she was done with me.

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